Defense: Smitten Syed pathetic and reckless, but not a thief

Former university president Hassan Syed was a “pathetic middle-aged man” who acted recklessly while “in the throes of a passionate love affair,” his attorney claimed Thursday.

The professor had been smitten with a much younger woman and foolishly used his college credit card to shower her with gifts, Tom Price, QC, acknowledged as he delivered his closing address in the Grand Court trial Thursday.

But, he said, his client had not acted dishonestly and had never intended to permanently deprive the college of the funds.

He said a system had been in place for Syed to use college funds, including the credit cards, for personal use and refund the money at a later date.

He accepted Syed may have “overborrowed” and that the college may have a civil claim against him to recover some funds. But he insisted the record showed that he had regularly paid back debts owed to the college.

Mr. Price said the evidence did not meet the threshold for the charge of theft, which he said requires the Crown to prove Syed dishonestly obtained the money with the intent to “permanently deprive” the college of those funds.

Syed is accused of theft in connection with more than US$200,000 spending on the college card, including thousands of dollars of gifts for his girlfriend at the time, Katrina Parchment.

He faces 11 other charges, including allegations that he bought a car for the same woman and fraudulently obtained a salary advance which he used to pay off her student loan. Mr. Price said Syed’s relationship with Ms. Parchment provided an interesting insight into the man.

“It is a rather pathetic picture,” Mr. Price said. “You have got this older man smitten with a much younger woman, wanting to shower her with jewelry from Tiffany, holidays in Jamaica.

“My mother always said there’s no fool like an old fool, and she’s right.

“When he was in the throes of a passionate love affair with a younger woman, standing at The Ritz-Carlton jewelry store or buying her a nice dress to go out to dinner, was he dishonest or was he just a pathetic middle-aged man?”

He asked the jury to consider whether Syed was intending to permanently steal the money or if he was just spending on the spur of the moment without considering at the time how it would be paid back, but knowing it would be paid back eventually.

“It’s pathetic, it’s embarrassing, but the intention is not one of dishonesty,” he said.

He asked the same question in relation to a salary advance later used to pay off US$60,000 of a student loan for Ms. Parchment. He said the transaction showed a certain “compassion,” putting himself into debt to pay off someone else’s debt, and working out the details later.

“It’s reckless, it’s stupid, but it’s not dishonest,” he added.

Mr. Price said his client’s actions over his 20-month stint as president between 2006 and 2008 showed he had not been seeking to permanently deprive the college of funds. He had borrowed and paid money back to the college through an agreed system with the college’s accountant Khemkaran Singh.

He suggested the credit card spending for personal items fit into this approved system and the funds would have been paid back.

“It may have been later; it may have been six months later; he may have overborrowed in the hope that he could pay the money back later and then got into financial difficulties, but at the point when he was buying those items on the credit card, did he have the intention to permanently deprive? That is the Crown’s case and it is fundamentally flawed.

“There may be a civil claim that could have been brought by the university. There may have been alternative criminal charges, but you have to find him guilty or not guilty on the specific charge of theft,” he said. He said UCCI had been shown to be a “dysfunctional” workplace where many of the staff didn’t know what their job was or weren’t doing it properly.

He suggested the accountant Mr. Singh had been responsible for the system of allowing Syed to use college funds for personal expenses and had authorized this behavior throughout, only raising concerns when the auditors came in.

“You can’t just skim over Mr. Singh and the system he had in place,” he told the jury.

He said Syed had been negligent about receipts and reckless in keeping track of his spending, but this was not a crime.

“Being reckless, being lazy, not being on top of paperwork, may be reprehensible in many ways but it is not dishonest,” Mr. Price said. He accepted Syed’s debts to the college had become quite substantial at times but suggested this was still within an approved framework and that the college’s best recourse to recover the money would have been a civil action.

Similarly he suggested the Portfolio of the Civil Service, which partnered with UCCI on the Civil Service College project, had been dysfunctional. Syed is charged with falsely billing the college for consultancy work on the project, as well as fraudulently creating invoices from a U.S. contractor to claim money from the college.

It was clear, Mr. Price said, that something was “not quite right” with the project, but said none of the senior civil servants called by the Crown had given any useful evidence.

“Nobody seemed to be able to say what was going on or give any explanation,” he said.

Syed faces a total of 12 charges in connection with his time at the college. Mr. Price said the jury would have to be sure he had acted dishonestly in each case to convict him.

“When you look at this shambolic college, this shambolic Portfolio of Civil Service, and the inadequate evidence you have heard from the Crown, can you really be sure?” he asked the jury.

Judge Philip St. John-Stevens began his summary of the case Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to continue Friday.

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